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8 B u s k e r F e s t DOI: 10.7330/9781607324454.c008 The Struggle for Space in Public Rhetorical Education Mary Ann Cain Some teaching moments couldn’t be better if we staged them. My Creativity and Community class had voted to conduct our final meeting at a coffeehouse one student, Holly,1 had used for her final project on creating public space. With only four students, it was easy to come to consensus about going “into the field.” Having only four students allowed much flexibility and also drew us closer together than previous semesters when the enrollment minimum of ten was met. We decided to see for ourselves if Holly was correct in her assessment that this coffeehouse provided a “third place,” urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s (1997) concept that had helped frame the semester’s discussion. Conversations in such places, writes Oldenburg, are characterized by social “leveling”: “[q]uite unlike those corporate realms wherein status dictates who may speak, and when and how much, and who may use levity and against which targets, the third place draws in like manner from everyone there assembled” (28).2 I hoped our coffeehouse experience would do something similar and leave students with a powerful final experience of how public space can level hierarchical social relations and foster creative expression within and between diverse social groups. As my eyes adjusted to the dim setting, I scanned the long, narrow, brick-walled room for signs of my students. Two were already seated at a massive antique oak bar, recycled from one of many nineteenth and early twentieth century establishments crafted by German immigrant cabinet makers. The old building leaned a bit with age and unspoken history. The coffeehouse was simply the latest iteration of over a century of industrial and commercial use. My German ancestors would likely approve. I was thinking of those ancestors as I searched for my students. But before I greeted them, my eyes suddenly met those of the barista. We burst out in exuberant surprise. BuskerFest   121 “Coco was a student in this class a few years ago,” I offered to the two students listening in. As Coco and I caught up, the other two students arrived to overhear a lengthy conversation about her life to date. “She used to play with the Three Rivers Jenbe Ensemble,” I said. The students nodded; I had spoken frequently about that group—a West African drumming, dance, and cultural education forum for young people —and its later formation as the Three Rivers Institute of Afrikan Art and Culture. Until this semester, Three Rivers had been a service learning option for the course. “Are you still connected with Three Rivers?” I asked. Coco proceeded to describe how her troupe of hula-hoop artists had been collaborating with Three Rivers. The upcoming street fair BuskerFest was next on their calendar. My students and I listened keenly to Coco’s description of her troupe, of BuskerFest (I had to ask what a busker was), and eventually to her memories of our class. “So is this place a third place?” I asked. I was fairly sure Coco would remember that term. “Most definitely,” she said. I turned to my students. We were all sipping drinks Coco had prepared and were ready to move to a table in the corner near the empty, ad hoc stage in the back. She had already opened the door to a “leveling ” of our talk. It is tempting to continue this story with such celebratory moments juxtaposed against the foreshadowing of a fiscal storm. For instance, while for some reason administrators had allowed the class to run despite its low numbers, I will not be able to count on such benevolence in the future. Enrollment benchmarks are just one of many neoliberal strategies that rein in not only costs but curricula. However, the aim of this chapter is not celebration or mourning. Instead, my purpose is to provide here-and-now observation of micro-moments of public spacemaking in and beyond writing classrooms as a way to understand how public space is created by claiming it. Writes social geographer Don Mitchell (2003, 35), “The very act of representing one’s group (or to some extent one’s self) to a larger public creates a space for representation . Representation both demands space and creates space.” I also seek to illustrate what’s at stake when such spaces grow ever more fragile and elusive. “No one is free to...


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